ONTARIO, Calif. — When Devin Setoguchi stepped outside of Citizens Business Bank Arena on Wednesday after the Ontario Reign’s morning skate, he hardly needed his neon green performance outerwear. It reached 80 degrees in Southern California’s Inland Empire on the mid-November morning that the 25-year-old prepared to play in his third game alongside his new ECHL teammates, an eventual 8-1 win over the San Francisco Bulls.
As a Taber, Alberta, native currently under contract with the Minnesota Wild, forgive Setoguchi if the California sunshine has clouded his travel preferences.
“We were on the road trip the other night to San Fran — a seven-hour bus ride,” the four-year NHL veteran said. “It was nice to be back, actually, on the bus and reminisce with good old stories passed back and forth. That was kind of fun.”
He’s referring to the familiarity of the players who comprise Ontario’s roster, and of the collective experiences they shared of playing junior hockey with and against each other in the Western Hockey League. That the Reign are so rich in their Western Canadian background is the primary reason he chose to play in the ECHL, spurning opportunities in Europe and elsewhere.
“I know a lot of guys on the team, and most notably, five of them from around Lethbridge, and I’m from Taber, which is 20 minutes away,” he said. “We work out and train together in the summer and skate, and I figured I might as well, if I was going to play somewhere, be with some of my friends and come and play like old times again.”
The team’s roster reads as if it was a mid-2000’s WHL All-Star team. The top four scorers are alumni of the Kamloops Blazers, Portland Winterhawks, Tri-City Americans and Saskatoon Blades. There are seven Albertans on the team, all of whom were born between 1984 and 1987.
“Everyone pretty much has played against each other or played with each other at some point,” said Setoguchi, who has three goals, five points and a plus-four rating in his first three games.
“Other than the Lethbridge guys, I’ve played with [Derek] Couture and I’ve played with [Chris] Cloud and played against [C.J.] Stretch, played against [Brady] Calla, played against [Dan] DaSilva. I’ve played against a lot of those guys. We pretty much know each other pretty well, so we’re a pretty tight knit group.”
He also gets to play alongside an old friend in Colton Yellow Horn, a Brocket, Alberta, native who returned to the ECHL after 2 1/2 seasons of playing the Central Hockey League and five years removed from the conclusion of a junior career that saw him accumulate 153 goals and 349 points over five seasons with Lethbridge and Tri-City. Yellow Horn, listed at 5-foot-6 and 174 pounds, scored his team-leading ninth goal of the season in Wednesday’s win and saw some power play time alongside Setoguchi, though the two are on separate scoring lines.
He also served as the Reign’s recruiter in landing the sniper.
“He was looking for a place to play, and I said, ‘Well, maybe come down here and play a little bit here,’” Yellow Horn said. “He thought about it for a month there. He’s staying down here, working out and training, so I think it was just the right time, right place for him, that we all end up playing here, and he had a place to come play with some of his old friends.”
It was an easy decision for Setoguchi to make, and while the allure of playing with longtime acquaintances had its perk, it wasn’t the only reason that drew him to the ECHL, as the majority of locked out NHL players hopped on planes overseas.
“Europe was always an option, but at the same time, if you can stay over here – and the hockey is good hockey – you’ve got to grind. You’ve got to skate. You’ve got to play,” he said. “I’ll tell you what, practices are pretty damn hard if you ask me. You only have 10 forwards going in a game. You get lots of ice. It’s good. It’s good for your conditioning, and good to get back and make those plays when you need to, and it’s definitely helped out.”
Two rungs below the NHL, the ECHL is not a popular league of choice for locked out players due to the general avoidance of taking someone else’s roster spot — something Setoguchi has acknowledged. Though San Jose Sharks forward Ryane Clowe is skating with San Francisco, he is acting more as a coach while maintaining his strength and conditioning and has yet to suit up in a game with the Bulls. The other four locked out players currently in the ECHL — Joey Crabb, Brandon Dubinsky, Scott Gomez and Nate Thompson — play in Anchorage for the Alaska Aces.
Though he has appeared in only three games, Setoguchi was still able to pinpoint a handful of nuances of the league’s style of play.
“Obviously, it’s pretty physical,” he said. “The difference might be guys aren’t full grown men yet, or at the best that they have, but I think the difference between a lot of pro guys and a lot of minor league players is that attention to detail. Maybe the quick decision-making, or just seeing something that develops, and maybe just getting rid of the puck when you need to instead of holding on to it. It’s usually the little things that separate guys from the minors to the NHL. There’s a lot of guys that if they got their chance, they could play. You never know. It’s about being responsible enough to make the right play every time. And that’s usually the difference, that NHL guys, they make the play right when they need to, and down here you can see it getting away from guys a little bit. But that’s just the learning thing.”
The lockout comes at an interesting juncture in Setoguchi’s career. He failed to crack 20 goals in a full NHL season for the first time in his career, a missed mark that spoke more of Minnesota’s offensive inconsistency than of major blemishes in his own game. It was also the first time since his 16-year-old rookie season with the Saskatoon Blades that he failed to play in a playoff game; in his previous seven seasons between the WHL and NHL he had appeared in 15 different playoff series.
But there’s also the promise of a resurgent Minnesota Wild season once a collective bargaining agreement is reached. With free-agent signees Ryan Suter and Zach Parise joining a team that already had a group of intriguing prospects such as Jason Zucker and Brett Bulmer, there will be a much stronger primary and supporting cast at the Xcel Energy Center.
“It’s definitely exciting,” Setoguchi said. “It’s disappointing that we couldn’t get it started on time, but once we get back and get it going, obviously there’s high expectations for our team, and for the players in the room, we know that. We just want to get back as soon as possible in order to play.”
Yellow Horn and Setoguchi played together for five years in minor hockey before their paths split: Setoguchi went on to make a major impact early in his career as a San Jose Shark, while Yellow Horn has continued to consistently put up goals and points throughout his career, which has taken him to Austria’s Erste Bank Eishockey Liga in addition to the ECHL and CHL.
“I never thought we’d play again, for sure, in the professional leagues,” Yellow Horn said.